Taking What Needs to Be Taken

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

‘Akedat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Twenty-Three,Second Part (Parshat Toledot)

Last time, R. Arama offered an allegory to explain the world was created without any intent for one people to be elevated over any other. Then Avraham outstripped all who had gone before him and all of his generation in the work of establishing and sanctifying Hashem’s Name in the world. In reward, Hashem lifted him above all nations, for him and his descendants forever.

Bereshit Rabbah 39 envisions Hashem saying He originally had to bless the whole world, whereas after the time of Avraham, Hashem could bless just Avraham and his descendants, the blessing to then spread to the rest of the world. [R. Arama means both sides of the equation, Avraham’s greatness along with the failures of the generations up to and including his time, combined to have Hashem set Avraham and his descendants apart.]

Avraham refrained from passing the blessings to Yitzhak because he was unsure of how it would or should affect Yishma’el and his other sons, and decided to leave it up to Hashem. To clarify, after Avraham passed away, Hashem appeared to Yitzhak at the beginning of Parshat Toledot to tell him he and his descendants would be the ones to have those blessings (at the beginning of Bereshit 26; unfortunately for his thesis, the Torah does not link Hashem’s appearance to Yitzhak to Avraham’s death, and the mention of the blessings could be explained as part of Hashem telling Yitzhak why he was required to stay in Israel rather than go to Egypt.]

Yitzhak’s Connection to Justice as a Challenge

Esav was clearly unfit for the blessings from birth, in R. Arama’s view, his redness showing him to be too animalistic to live up to the blessings. [R. Arama points to the Guide, where Rambam speaks of certain people and nations as barely better than animals. He does not explain, however, why Esav was unable to overcome this aspect, why he—in theory—could not have learned to be a better person, an attitude I do not recall Rambam adopting.]

Esav’s lack of qualifications might have led a different Patriarch to switch the rights of the first-born to another son; Yitzhak had a problem doing it, because he was particularly connected to middat ha-din, Gd’s strict justice. R. Arama supports the claim with a careful reading of the Names of Gd used in Parashiyyot Lekh Lekha and Va-Yera, where incidents involving Yitzhak almost always use the Name Elokim, the Attribute of Justice, where his father was addressed with the four-letter Name, the Attribute of Mercy.

As if to heighten the point, the Torah switches Names in the middle of a story. For all of Lekh Lekha, the four-letter Name is used, until Bereshit 17;3, where Gd tells Avraham he will have a son, who will have Hashem as his and all his descendants’ Gd. There, Elokim becomes the Name, all the way through to the end, where verse twenty-two tells us Elokim ascended from the discussion.

Six verses later, 18;1, the Torah uses the four-letter Name to say Hashem appeared to Avraham, that Name being used until chapter 21, where Hashem pakad Sarah, allows or helps Sarah to become pregnant. In verse twelve, where Avraham is struggling with Sarah’s demand he expel Yishma’el from the house, Elokim tells Avraham to listen to her. [His examples aren’t perfect, because Elokim is not completely absent from the intervening chapters. Still, they’re pretty good, especially his noticing the switch of Divine Names in the middle of stories.]

It was all because Yitzhak was most connected to Hashem’s Attribute of Justice. Mostly a good and praiseworthy aspect of Yitzkah, it created problems when it became clear the blessings needed to go to a different son. Justice did not allow taking the blessings from Esav straightforwardly [Esav had not yet committed wrongs requiring forfeiture of the blessings, he had shown himself unfit]. In Baba Batra 133b, the amora Shemu’el warns Rav Yehuda not to be among those who shift inheritances from the rightful heir [in quoting the source, R. Arama assumes the ethics around inheritance were the same for Yitzhak as for rabbis of the Talmud.] In R. Arama’s view, treating the firstborn as firstborn, was the route of strict justice, and Yitzhak thought Esav could improve enough to make it work.

Rivka and Ya’akov Take Action

His wife and younger son knew different, took responsibility for producing the outcome they were sure Hashem preferred. They knew Hashem wants people involved in such situations, says R. Arama. It’s a mouthful, the idea people are supposed to take action to bring about what they understand to be Gd’s Will, not just leave it to Hashem to foster the proper future.

Ya’akov went first, in the lentil soup interaction, convincing Esav to relinquish his rights as firstborn. R. Arama thinks the foods he gave, bread and lentil soup, were the appropriate ones for Esav, showed his coarseness, made clear he was not the person for the lofty heights of the blessings Yitzhak was going to confer. By “buying” the birthright, Ya’akov removed one of the objections Yitzhak’s strict rules-oriented approach would have raised about giving the younger son the blessings.

Rivka decided they had to trick Yitzhak because she worried the distress of hearing his older son was unfit would leave him unready to give anyone the blessings. What we might see as a sin or trick, R. Arama sees as proper care for the future. In his view, the needs of eternity take precedence over the current needs of people, whatever may come.

[Whatever we think of this instance, I think he raises a question we might notice too infrequently: where the needs of eternity do conflict with current needs and even, sometimes, with ordinary norms, which take precedence? Remember, tradition has it the Maccabees innovated in pursuing their rebellion on Shabbat as well. R. Arama reminds us to think about when ordinarily proper behavior is not the right course of action.]

Worldly matters have too temporary a value to act as Rivkah and Ya’akov did; we can’t and shouldn’t trick someone into giving up a job we want, because we are supposed to know the job is ephemeral, passing, a stage. To insist on one’s own benefit over others shows misplaced values.

With matters of ultimate truth, however, R. Arama thinks it proper and praiseworthy to put oneself first. [Of course, he opens a loophole many of us would be tempted to use—I don’t want to trick someone else out of their job for my benefit, it’s because the company needs me, the world needs me, to make sure our widgets get made and are marketed better. Just because we might fool ourselves into thinking it doesn’t, however, mean it’s not sometimes true, and R. Arama thinks Ya’akov and Esav was one of those times.]

He likens it to Baba Batra 22a’s statement kin’at soferim tarbeh hokhma, the jealousy of scholars increases wisdom. Ordinarily, jealousy is a terrible character trait. Where a person is jealous of another’s good qualities, and it leads only to attempts at self-improvement, it is good. As happened with Rahel’s jealousy of Le’ah, read by Bereshit Rabbah 71 to mean her good deeds.

The Truest Love

To explain how he can prefer self-care over treating others well, when the verse in the Torah asks us to love our fellow as ourselves, when Hillel famously told a convert the essence of Torah was to refrain from acting to others as we would dislike them doing to us, R. Arama points to Aristotle’s comments on friendship, comments R. Arama finds fully in agreement with the ideals of the Torah and of Haza”l.

Aristotle notes the longstanding appreciation of friendship, and rejects its simplest version. As Aristotle says (I stress, because many today might no longer agree, might reject it as a wrong Jewish idea, when in fact, it’s a longstanding general idea), the colloquial version of love would also applaud mothers who love their children the same regardless of their being good or evil. For Aristotle (and, remember, R. Arama is already on record that Judaism is in full agreement), people of good character love what’s good and hate what is evil. The speaker in Tehillim 139; 21 points to his hatred of those who act hatefully towards Hashem, his arguing and fighting with those who rebel against Hashem, as positive aspects he hopes Hashem will notice about him.

[The idea has been so lost, I pause to explore what it says about proper parental love. To reiterate the starting point, R. Arama reminds us we are supposed to love what is good—the easier part– and hate what is evil. Earlier sources knew the distinction between hating the sin and hating the sinner, and I have no reason to think R. Arama disagrees.

Still, a parent with two children, one good and one acting evilly, should feel differently about them—the parent still loves the one acting evilly, in the sense of feeling a lasting connection and always hoping for the child’s eventual return to better ways. But that love needs to be different and to express itself differently than how the parent feels and acts towards a child who is already acting well and cultivating goodness, Aristotle and Judaism are telling us].

Love With Content

Our love of ourselves and others should mean love of when we do well, love of the part of ourselves that leads us to do well (in R. Arama’s world, our intellectual sides). Hazal say as much, in Baba Metzi’a 59a, when they define the Torah’s reference to a neighbor, amit, as “one who is with you in Torah and mitzvot.” Otherwise, the person is not a friend, and there is no reason to love him, says R. Arama.

[He goes an interesting step further, says were the person to reform, s/he him/herself would not have wanted his/her former self to have received those goods. .I do not know how we feel about the idea today, but I think the attitude needs to be considered, needs to be part of our overall picture—helping those who are currently acting wrongly is a bit wrong, because it supports their evil. There are often other factors militatinig in favor of giving the help—as Hashem does in letting sinners earn a living, maintain good health, etc.–but I believe we have to keep both sides in mind. I am also struck by the extent he expects people who have found their way away from evil to reject and look down on their former selves.]

Loving your fellow as yourself means loving the aspect of ourselves leading us to our truest selves, and loving most those neighbors who fit and act according to that worldview. Back in Tehillim 24, the reference to one clean of hands and bar levav, a pure heart, to R. Arama indicating someone who does not partake of external (meaning: lacking full value) goods, whose heart focuses solely on the true success of the soul.

And in that world, Rivkah and Ya’akov’s actions are more understandable, expressions of their love of Gd’s service, their dedication to helping the world move closer to it.

About Gidon Rothstein

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